Shabbat Pinchas: Women’s Rights

July 21, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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Halfway through this week’s reading comes the episode of the daughters of Zelofchad. 

The allocations of tribal territory in the Land of Israel were now being made according to the males. Common enough everywhere in those days yet problematic and unfair in many parts of our world today.

The five daughters of Zelofchad approached Moses with a claim. Their father had died through no fault of his own and there were no sons. This meant that when the allocation of land was going to be made for when they would settle in Israel, their father’s family would lose out because the land was given through the males. They argued that they should be able to receive an allocation to ensure that their father’s family would not disappear from the tribal rolls. The daughters are named Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Interestingly Noah and Tirzah are common Hebrew names today, the others are not. I wonder why, perhaps because the sound is so much nicer.

This is one of two examples where Moses was unsure of what to do on a matter of law. So that this episode illustrates how it was necessary to go on interpreting and clarifying Jewish law even after the Sinai Revelation, and it shows how access to the courts at that stage was available to women as well as men. Moses refers the case to God and comes back with his approval of the daughters being granted land in their right too.

Later, in Chapter 36 there was a challenge to this judgment because allocations were made per tribe. And if the daughters married outside of their tribe, their allocations would be transferred to another tribe and cause an imbalance in the amount of property a tribe could own. Moses then accepts the argument and insists that the daughters should only marry within their own tribe. This way each tribe would retain the proportion of the original allocation. Because of this, it was made clear that any tribal land that was sold outside of the tribe could be redeemed by a member of that tribe within the Sabbatical. And The Jubilee required all tribal lands to return to their original tribes regardless. Of course, this applied at a time when tribal land was relevant, and this ended with the first exile. Since these conditions no longer apply and so we are left with the concepts and ideas that can have relevance even though the commercial world has changed.

What is implicit in all this, apart from the rights of women, was that no one should not acquire too much or have a monopoly over lands. And the priests were not allocated land so that they could concentrate on community service and not get involved in accumulating real estate. This is why originally all marriages between tribes were forbidden. And the Festival of the the15th of Av which we do not make a fuss of nowadays commemorated the decree that lifted the ban and allowed marriage regardless of tribe. Even so, we can learn from this that Torah was concerned about the dangers of allowing any tribe or person to acquire a monopoly over land or any other area of commercial activity. Excessive accumulation brings with it ethical problems.

The Talmud always adds extra dimensions to a narrative. Zelofchad’s daughters are mentioned again later in the appeal of the male-dominated tribal leaders, but in a different order; Machlah, Tirzah, Choglah, Milcah, and Noah. Rashi says this is because each one of them was equal to the other in terms of qualities. The Talmud also says they were equal in wisdom and greatness and merited having their names attached to the laws of inheritance. Others suggest the order had to do with either who married first or who married a more important tribal leader. But I do like the egalitarian reason that enshrines the rights of anyone to plead their case regardless of sex or status.

The daughters are an important symbol because they brought their case with dignity whereas others in the Bible brought their cases with anger and confrontation. The Talmud (Bava Batra 119) also says they came to the Beit Midrash, the Study Halls, to plead their case. They wanted to bring about change through the legal structures and the existing system instead of trying to overturn it.

If the Torah this week starts with the example of someone going beyond the law, these women assert the value of working within it.

Numbers 25:10-30:1

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